I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings*
By Jessica Goldstein
When I was an undergrad, Maya Angelou came to my school to give the keynote address for Women’s Week. I remember everyone waiting for her, futzing around on our phones and talking about what we were doing that weekend and then, cutting clean through the clamor, Angelou walked onstage and started to sing: “Oh when the saints, go marching in…”
Everyone stopped and listened. You couldn’t not listen. That voice.
It’s maybe one of the most well-traveled voices in American history. After a nearly five-year period of silence during her childhood—in the aftermath of the murder of the man who raped her, Angelou feared she had a voice that could kill—Angelou spent a lifetime speaking out. Her voice bounced around empty hotel rooms where she escaped to write in solitude; she’d lie across the bed, art dismantled from the walls to eliminate even the slightest distraction, and refuse to let maids change the sheets on the grounds that she never slept there. Her voice carried through San Francisco, from the streetcars to the Purple Onion nightclub. She gave commencement addresses, recited poetry at a presidential inauguration. You could hear her voice on Oprah. You could hear her voice singing on Sesame Street.
Her voice has an almost mythical quality. In her death, it seems to be even louder than it was in her lifetime. Dwan Reece, curator of music and performing arts for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, talked to me by phone today about the enduring power and reach of Angelou’s voice.
For people who don’t remember what American literature was like before Angelou came on the scene, can you put her contributions in context? What was missing from that space that her voice brought?
I think she really brought something to the nature of autobiography, and really putting the stories of African Americans, and African American women front and center, and really announcing who she was and what her experiences were, the kind of the social and cultural descriptions: what her life was like, the environment she grew up in.
Was that a risky move at the time? Were the stories she was telling taboo in any way?
The risk may have been in finding the amount of readers. I think, because in the landscape, it hadn’t been done before and reached the wide acceptance that it did before, she was the right time, the right person, to make this breakthrough for autobiography.
How did people respond to I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings initially? Was it well-received right away, or did it take time to gain national acceptance?
I think the initial reception [to the book] was very positive. I think, arguably, most people really felt that particular piece was her best work. There’s also this phrase thrown out, this idea of autobiographical fiction, and some people like to describe her work in that way, in a somewhat derivative sense… that she brought some of the stylistic techniques of fiction in telling her own story. I know, reading the book for the first time, there was a certain beauty in the prose, not just the historic retelling but a narrative that presented a three-dimensional experience of a young girl and a young adult, and an older woman. So representing black women’s lives as they really are, I wouldn’t say it was taboo, but it was perfectly honest. [There was] an honesty in what she was willing to tell that may not have been accepted at the time.
What do you think the reaction would be like if that book were published tomorrow? Modern readers seem to be pretty unforgiving of non-fiction writers who are found to have fictionalized parts of their work.
On one level, I don’t think it would be scandalous because people are more honest and forthright in their writing, because people are willing to take chances. But that question of what is fiction, what is truth, we do run into that in works of literature. There’s always a literature scandal, so to speak. But I think we’re more allowed to take liberties in the retelling of our stories. People are more accepting.
For a writer who is so a part of the highly respected literary world, Angelou was so game to participate in mainstream culture—the kinds of things other “highbrow” writers might consider beneath them: appearing on popular television shows, partnering with Hallmark. Why do you think she was so drawn to that?
It’s interesting that you say that. I never thought of her as highbrow or beyond reach of the average reader, and I’m trying to think why. I think a lot of that has to do with her voice. The accessibility of a one-person narrative, I can’t say that enough… The directness of her language, the beauty of her prose, the reflection of human emotions and responses, and all of that framed within the arc of American history. Her books were not just the narrative of one person, but the narrative of American social and cultural history as it evolved over time. So I think those kinds of things are more accessible to the general reader. They can see themselves in her story, either as a witness or as a participant.
I ask in part because there are certainly high-profile writers who appear to want nothing to do with mainstream pop culture. I’m thinking of the whole Jonathan Franzen/Oprah tiff, when she tried to pick The Corrections as a book club selection and he didn’t want anything to do with it. Even though he ended up relenting and being on the show, that was revealing to me. I remember thinking, “Well, if it’s good enough for Maya Angelou, why is it beneath you?”
I wouldn’t think she felt that [Oprah’s audience] was beneath her. I think she was about communicating with humanity. You look at the many quotes, today, how everyone is responding to her passing. It’s walking a fine line, and she definitely did that. She was able to pursue her art in the way that she chose, and also talk to people. To me, if you write and have high mindedness and goals, and you’re not read by anyone, I wouldn’t say your work is less valuable, but are people really engaging with what you have to say? And I think people were engaged from the day she was first published to the day she died, and they were moved by her. And in that sense, she kind of set an example, for many writers today, particularly African American women writers…While it’s hard to walk that middle line, it can be done. And I think most authors want to be read, and want people to engage with what they have to say, whether positive or negative, because that’s how you know it hit a chord. She hit a chord with America—with the world over—and if she’s a child of the African diaspora, she’s a child of everything. She truly was a Renaissance woman.
What about her partnership with Hallmark? That’s kind of the ultimate high art/low art mash-up.
To me it’s a writer making a deal and getting her work out there. I’m not denigrating Hallmark, but she elevated it. She brought a certain gravitas. To put a Maya Angelou quote in a card, to express something to someone, it gave something more to it, as far as I’m concerned.
Getting your work out there, that’s part of the challenge… This is the way that we engage. Not all of us read books; not all of us listen to poetry. Not all of us read newspapers. But if you get enough places out there, someone’s going to connect with it.
She even joined Twitter! I’ve seen so many people retweeting her old messages all day today.
The reaction, this outpouring of respect that she’s getting from all walks of life, is kind of an anthropological experiment—to see how people respond when someone passes away, it’s just [so] telling.
I think there’s a big sense of loss, not only in the person but what she represented. And [people are] hoping she can carry on. A lot of people circulate her quotes, they talk about humanity, how their heart is breaking over her loss. She really reached a generation, or two.
When it comes to just pure name recognition—the ubiquity of who Angelou was, her work, and what she stood for—how many other writers have ever reached that level?
I’m going to venture to guess that very few, and it touches upon what I mentioned earlier, about her ability to reach people. I also think that there’s a resonance for women that can’t be overstated, of women speaking up. The voice, to me, that was what caught my imagination. And it wasn’t just her literal voice, it was a figurative and spiritual voice as well. The sense of agency that she brought to her work, and everything that she did. Illuminating injustices, sharing of herself, celebrating culture, and asserting her right to be a woman, and to be a strong woman in a masculine world is, I think, very influential.
Angelou delivered a poem at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, making her only the second poet to do so, after Robert Frost recited a poem for Kennedy. What did that honor mean for her, as a cultural icon?
It cemented her—it didn’t even just cement her as part of the American story, it cemented everyone she has represented and spoken for, in her life and in her writing. She finally arrived, and we, too, are part of the story. It’s probably the same sentiment people felt when Barack Obama was inaugurated for the first time, to see her participating in something like this. Given the history of this country, the racism and oppression, and she being a child of some of its worst, lowest points. For her to be writing this poem to the President of the United States, representing the people of the United States, it felt wonderful, and life-affirming in some ways. And everything she did represented this sense of possibility, because she was always trying something new.
How will she be represented in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, when in opens? (The museum is slated to open by 2015).
Her story touches upon several places in the History Gallery, particularly in the ‘60s and beyond, and in the Cultural Gallery, our Cultural Expressions Gallery, our Musicians Gallery, our Taking the Stage Gallery. The breadth of her work covers so much. She’s one of these unique figures in African American culture and history. There’s no question that she will be represented. She represents a certain layer of wisdom that people have called upon over time and will call upon in the future.
Did you ever get the chance to meet her?
No, I did not… I will say that I was so affected by her when I read her books, over a series of time in my late twenties, that after I did, I named my first child after her. I know the seed was planted with me. You look at the reaction overall, people are affected. I hope that we continue to be moved by her work.
Your daughter’s name is Maya?
My daughter’s name is Maya. I wanted her to have something to grow into and live up to.